Of all the virtues exhibited in the six books of the Faerie Queen, Chastity, the subject of the third book seems the most outmoded. In today’s world of hook up culture, and non-committal marriage vows like “for as long as our love shall last” in place of “till death do us part”, it’s hard to see how Spenser could have anything valuable to say. However, I think it’s important to understand what chastity amounts to in the faerie queen. The virtue itself is exhibited through one of Spenser's most memorable and powerful characters, the Lady Knight: Britomart. Book III centres around Britomart’s quest to seek her lover Artegall, with whom she is destined to find the then contemporary British Kingdom.
As we'll see in this essay, chastity is neither a virtue that applies only to women for Spenser, not ought it be equated with a rejection of sexuality and sexual desire. Chastity for Spenser is about maintaining a kind of internal sexual integrity. The chaste person explores their sexual desires within the confines of traditional marital relationships, and even then, such relations are only legitimate if there is a genuine romantic love between lovers.
Spenser exemplifies aspects of virtue of chastity by contrasting Britomart with several unchaste characters, both male and female. As he says, “good by paragon (comparison), of euill, may more notably be rad, as white seemes fairer, mached with blacke attone”. The most memorable comparison with Britomart comes from the lusty Hellenore, inspired by Helen of Troy, a woman who runs away from her husband Malbecco with a Knight, equally lusty, who abandons her once she has satisfied him. Hellenore is then discovered by a gang of Satyrs, who give her all the sexual gratification she could ever wish for and then some, so that, when her miserly husband discovers her, she rejects him. This leads to some harsh though comical divine justice for Malbecco. Distraught at being cuckholded by his wife and duped by his comrades into giving up his treasure, he attempts suicide by throwing himself of a cliff, only to survive and then crawl into a cave where he spends out the rest of his existence. Harsh, maybe. But also, perhaps a fitting end for a man who loved his treasure more than his wife, so much so that he attended to his stolen goods before he pursued the wife who, for all he knew, had been kidnapped by a rapist.
There are two lessons about chastity here. The obvious one is Hellenore, who is meant to be an example of an unchaste woman, who ends her days more beast than woman. But there is also a lesson about a man’s duty to his wife here too. Malbecco, who dotes on his money more than his wife, is surely a contributing factor to his wife’s dissatisfaction and his own cuckoldry.
Although Britomart represents the virtue of charity, and though she is often contrasted with unchaste women, we shouldn’t take this to mean that men aren’t also advised to be chaste. In Canto I, Britomart comes across the Redcross Knight from book I, who is being attacked by six other knights, who are trying to force him to love a woman other than his fair Lady Una. After besting these men, Britomart lectures them as to the impossibility of forced love.
Ne may love be compeled by maisterie;
For soon as maisterie comes, sweet loue anone
Taketh his nimble wings, and soone away is gone.
This speech against forced love works on two levels. Firstly, it shows how for Spenser, love must flow natural from a person; it cannot be mandated by social forces. Secondly, it is an indictment of the “white knight” mentality, where knights view themselves as entitled to ladies on the basis of their victories against each other, as opposed to winning her heart. A lesson that many a modern 'nice guy' ought to pay attention to.
On the contrary to these unchaste figures, we have Britomart, who has complete inner control of her sexual desires and appetites. This does not mean that she is a non-sexual character; rather, it means that he sexual energy and desires are fixed to the object of her quest, her future husband Artegall. As is always the case with Spenser, the internal virtue or vice of a character is reflected in their physical appearance. Britomart’s inner integrity and control means that she presents as an androgynous figure; her inner strength manifests itself in a body that is equal parts masculine and sublime and feminine and beautiful.
For she was full of amiable grace,
And manly terrour mixed therewithal,
That as the one stird up vp affections bace,
So th’other did mens rash desires apall,
And hold them backe, that would in errour fall:
As he that hath espied a vermeil Rose,
To which sharpe thrones and beres the way forestall,
Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose,
But wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose.
Britomart demonstrates a woman at the height of moral and sexual power. She can attract men by her beauty, but she has the inner force of will and outer might to protect herself from unwonted advances, whether by persuasion or force.
Although Britomart is a warrior figure, destined for adventure in pursuit of her love, Spenser would probably not please many modern feminists when discussing her final fate as great mother. As Merlin tells her, Britomart will for a “long time… in armes shall bear great sway, till they wombes burden thee from them do call.” Ultimately, Britomart’s quest is the pursuit of her Artegall. She may enjoy many quests, and best many foes along the way, but one day she will have to leave the forest and spear and devote her life to motherhood. Thus, even Spenser’s most androgynous and powerful female figures still ends her days by conforming to traditional roles of femininity. Though of course, for Spenser, this should not be taken as a slight on Britomart’s character or her achievements. In many ways, she eclipses every other character in the whole of the Faerie Queene. Even structurally, her story, not completed in this Book, serves as the lynchpin running through all the remaining books. And as an androgynous figure, she enjoys the masculine and feminine experience in equal measure. As a Knight, she makes many conquests, and is destined to rescue her own future Artegall in a reversal of traditional gender roles. Then, as a mother, she serves as a mythological Great Mother whose lineage descends all the way to Elizibeth I.
Tho when the terme is full accomplished,
There shall a sparke of fire, which hath long-while
Bene in his ashes raked up, and hid,
Be freshly kindled in the fruitful Ile
Of Mona, where it lurked in exile;
Which shall breake forth into bright burning flame
And reach into the house, that beares the stile
Of royall maiesty and soueraigne name;
So shall the Briton bloud their crowne againe reclama.
Thenceforth eternall vnion shall be made
Between the nations different afore,
And sacred Peace shall louingly perswade
The warlike minds, to learne her goodly lore,
And ciuile armes to exercise no more:
Then shall a royall virgin raine, which shall
Stretch her white rod ouer the Belgicke shore,
And the great Castle smile so sore with all,
That it shall make him shake, and shortly learn to fall.